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Archbishop Desmond Tutu Dies at 90

The Most Rev. Desmond Mpilo Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, who played a key role in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and led the nation’s famed Truth and Reconciliation process, died of cancer December 26 in Cape Town, at 90. Tutu, an advocate of non-violent resistance, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, and was among the world’s leading human rights activists.

His successor, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, said of him, “He believed totally that each one of us is made in the image of God and ought to be treated as such by others. This belief was not reached through cerebral contemplation; it arose from his faith and was held with a deeply-felt passion. He wanted every human being on earth to experience the freedom, the peace and the joy that all of us could enjoy if we truly respected one another as people created in the image of God.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury praised him as” a prophet and priest, a man of words and action, one who embodied the hope and joy that were the foundations of his life. He was a man of extraordinary personal courage and bravery: when the police burst into Capetown Cathedral, he defied them by dancing down the aisle.”

“When you were in parts of the world where there was little Anglican presence and people weren’t sure what the Anglican church was, it was enough to say ‘It’s the Church that Desmond Tutu belongs to’ — a testimony to the international reputation he had and the respect with which he was held.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry wrote, “he sought to follow Jesus of Nazareth in God’s way of love and life. In so doing, he showed us how to live God’s dream as children of the one God and creator of all.”

Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, in northwestern South Africa, to a poor Xhosa-speaking family. His father was principal of a Methodist primary school, and fostered a love of reading in his talented, though sickly, second son. The family joined the Anglican Church when Tutu was a small boy, and he later recalled being deeply moved to see his white parish priest tip his hat to Tutu’s mother, a domestic servant.

The priest was English monk and missionary Trevor Huddleston, who visited Tutu regularly when he was hospitalized for 18 months with tuberculosis. Huddleston, who would become one of the fiercest early critics of the apartheid regime, and whose influential book Naught for Your Comfort (1960) raised awareness about social injustice in South Africa, is seen by many as Tutu’s most important mentor.

Tutu trained as a teacher and taught English and history for several years, before deciding to leave the profession, partly in reaction to the 1953 Bantu Education Act, which forced many of the country’s best schools for Blacks to close. With Huddleston’s support, he trained for ordination at St. Peter’s Theological College in Rosettenville, a mission of the Community of the Resurrection.

After his ordination, Tutu served in two parishes in South Africa’s Highveld region. Impressed by his intelligence and leadership potential, the principal at St. Peter’s arranged for Tutu and his growing family to travel to London, where he earned a master’s in theology at King’s College, and worked in several majority-white parishes, while writing a dissertation on Islam in West Africa. Tutu later said that his time in London helped him to overcome the bitterness towards whites and feelings of racial inferiority that the apartheid system had fostered in him.

Tutu returned to South Africa in 1967 to serve as the first Black faculty member at the Federal Theological Seminary, a new interdenominational institution in Alice, Eastern Cape. He served as chaplain at the nearby University of Fort Hare, a center for student activism for racial justice, and took his first tentative steps toward the anti-apartheid movement by praying with a group of student protesters when they were surrounded by police with attack dogs.

After a stint teaching theology at the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, he became director for Africa of the World Council of Churches’ Theological Education Fund, responsible for administering grants to institutions and individual students across the continent. Tutu traveled widely across Africa, and also discovered liberation theology, including the Black theology movement emerging in tandem with the Civil Rights struggle in the United States. In a paper presented at New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1973, he described Black theology as “a gut level theology, relating to the real concerns, the life and death issues of the black man.”

In 1975, Tutu became the first Black dean of the majority-white St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, one of most influential posts in the South African church. He spoke out with passion about social issues, endorsing the international economic boycott against South Africa, and criticizing the repressive Terrorism Act.

He was elected as Bishop of Lesotho just a year later, and worked to build up clerical education in the rural mountainous diocese. He returned to South Africa in 1977 to preach at the funeral of Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko, who had been brutally killed by police after being held without trial for nearly two years. In his sermon, Tutu described Black Consciousness as “a movement by which God, through Steve, sought to awaken in the black person a sense of his intrinsic value and worth as a child of God.”

He became head of the South African Council of Churches in 1978, and helped it to become one of the nation’s most influential human rights advocacy groups. He also served as rector of St. Augustine’s, a parish near his home in Soweto, a Black township within Johannesburg, and published several volumes of his sermons and speeches.

Tutu testified in court on behalf of a captured cell of the armed anti-apartheid group, uMkhonto we Sizwe, saying that while he opposed the use of violence, he could understand why desperation at apartheid’s injustices would lead some Blacks to take up arms. He signed a petition calling for the freeing of Nelson Mandela, and led the Council to commit itself to civil disobedience against apartheid. His anti-government rhetoric and vocal support for the crippling economic blockade angered many white liberals in South Africa, but he was a hero among the nation’s Blacks.

His work began to receive international reputation, and in 1978 he was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Kent and General Theological Seminary, the first of 50 such recognitions. Though the South African government tried to restrict his voice by repeatedly cancelling his passport, he traveled widely to gain to gain support for the anti-apartheid cause, meeting with church leaders and heads of state, addressing the United Nations, the Episcopal Church’s 1982 General Convention, and U.S. Congressional committees. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the second South African to receive the award.

He was elected as Bishop of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest diocese, in 1985, and became Archbishop of Cape Town and primate of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa a year later. More than 1,300 people attended his enthronement service at the Cathedral of St. George the Martyr, including Coretta Scott King, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. The guest list was said to have been designed to infuriate the government, and despite threats of an assassination plot, the event came off without a hitch.

Tutu and his family illegally moved into the official residence in the wealthy all-white suburb of Bishopscourt, and then installed a children’s playground in its grounds and opened it and the local swimming pool to members of his diocese of all races. He worked to mediate violent clashes between Black protesters and government security forces, and pleaded successfully for the sparing of the Sharpeville Six, a group of young Black protesters, whose sentencing to death by hanging was widely condemned by the international community.

Tutu cheered South African president F.W. de Klerk’s 1990 decision to begin the dismantlement of the apartheid system by lifting the ban on the African National Congress and releasing Nelson Mandela from his detention on Robben Island. Mandela stayed at Bishopscourt on his first night of freedom and he and Tutu spoke together to crowds of supporters in Cape Town shortly afterwards.

Tutu aimed to prepare the way for South Africa’s multiracial future, what he called becoming a “rainbow nation” by advocating for an end to foreign sanctions and calling on anti-apartheid groups to lay down their weapons. At a controversial 1990 provincial synod he also led the push for a churchwide ban on Anglican clergy belonging to political parties, hoping to de-escalate the growing violence between the country’s leading Black political groups, which partly fell along ethnic lines.

He rejoiced in South Africa’s first multiracial general election in April 1994, allowing his photo to be used on posters encouraging Black South Africans to vote. When Nelson Mandela was declared president, he planned interfaith prayers for the inauguration ceremony.

Tutu was elected president of the All-Africa Conference of Churches in 1987, and as South Africa began its transition to a post-apartheid future, he turned his attention to advocacy for peace and justice around the world. He attempted to broker a ceasefire in Liberia’s Civil War in 1994, and traveled to Rwanda a year later to urge a process of reconciliation and healing after its devastating genocide. He criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, noting that the existence of “deeply, deeply distressing” parallels between their status and that of non-whites under apartheid rule. He also controversially called for a two-state solution to the ongoing crisis in a 1989 Christmas pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

Tutu played a crucial role in South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process, which aimed to bring to light widespread human rights abuses committed by the state and by anti-apartheid activists during the decades before the system’s collapse. He served as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposing its method of allowing those responsible for abuses to fully confess their deeds, followed by forgiveness in the form of amnesty from prosecution, and subsequent acts of restitution to those they had victimized.

The Commission received the testimony of approximately 21,000 victims, and 7,112 applications for amnesty from the perpetrators of abuse. They decided to consider only those who had committed the most egregious abuses, but still ended up conducting thousands of hours of live hearings, many of which were aired on national television. Tutu was often overwhelmed by emotion while hearing the testimony of victims, and was furious when some ANC leaders sought to suppress parts of the commission’s final report that described its complicity in torture and attacks on civilians.

Tutu wrote about his experience on the Commission in the acclaimed book No Future Without Forgiveness (1999). The Commission’s model has been used to reveal past wrongdoing and resolve persistent conflict in numerous nations around the world.

Tutu retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, as his role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was expanding. President Mandela awarded him with South Africa’s highest honor, the Order for Meritorious Service at his farewell service. He taught at several universities and seminaries in the United States and England in the following years, and continued to speak out about various social and political issues including the Iraq War, Africa’s AIDS crisis, climate change injustice, Chinese oppression in Tibet, the abuses of Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, and corruption in the ANC.

He was also a vocal supporter of gay rights issues in the Church. As archbishop, he promoted closeted gays to several positions of leadership and strongly criticized the 1998 Lambeth Conference’s Resolution 1.10, which condemned homosexual acts, writing to Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey “I am ashamed to be an Anglican.” He called on his own Anglican Church of Southern Africa to accept same-sex marriages in 2011, and gave the blessing at the marriage of his daughter, the Rev. Mpho Tutu, to a woman in the Netherlands in 2015.

Tutu’s dramatic preaching and deep capacity for empathy earned him the admiration of many who were suspicious of his political views. Makgoba remembered, “He felt with the people. In public and alone, he cried because he felt people’s pain. And he laughed — no, not just laughed, he cackled with delight — when he shared their joy.”

His wide-ranging ministry was sustained by a regular practice of prayer. For decades, he awoke at 4:00 to begin each day with a walk, prayers, and a celebration of the Eucharist. He often spent an hour at his prayers each morning, read the Bible daily, and fasted until supper on Fridays.

Tutu is survived by his wife, Nomalizo Leah Shenxane Tutu, whom he met in college; and by their four children. Trevor, Theresa, Naomi, and Mpho. Archbishop Makgoba said that funeral plans for Tutu have not yet been announced.

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